Project Management | Focus

Planning for Disaster

One community college system stages a yearly event to help member institutions hone their emergency-management skills.

Two years ago, when the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) stepped up its efforts to ensure that the state's institutions were adequately prepared for emergencies, the Virginia Community College System determined it needed a better disaster plan. Some of the new state standards came in response to the April 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, while other efforts were focused on emergency management in general.

"We're governed by a lot of state initiatives and mandates that dictate our actions," explains Mary Savage, emergency preparedness and safety manager for the 425,000-student community college system. "These government groups all have some level of oversight in terms of our emergency, continuity of operations, and disaster-recovery plans."

At the time, VCCS was already in the middle of implementing technology-based notification systems for its individual schools, but the system wanted to take its emergency planning a step further. "A few of us got together with the system president and decided that a summit would be the best way to roll out some of these initiatives at the campus level," says Savage. "We wanted attendees to go back and say, 'Hey, we learned these planning tactics or emergency drills, and we're going to use them on campus.'"

The Summit
Savage and Joy Hatch, VCCS' vice chancellor of IT, worked together to develop an annual meeting where the leaders and administrators from the system's 40 campuses could learn about disaster planning. The COOP/DR Summit (named after VDEM's Continuity of Operations Planning mandate) serves as a training ground for attendees, who can then put the newfound knowledge to use at their own schools.

The two-day event comprises a keynote presentation and breakout sessions on a range of disaster-planning topics, from how to communicate during a crisis to the importance of testing your recovery plan. For the 2010 summit, for example, Brian Wisniewski of Carnegie Mellon University's (PA) Software Engineering Institute spoke about best practices for leveraging IT for business continuity, while Jeffrey Kraus of VCCS discussed social media's role in continuity planning. Speakers and panel members are recruited from individual colleges within the system, as well as from local organizations such as Dominion Virginia Power, VDEM, and the Virginia Professional Fire Fighters.

Attendees also are able to visit with vendors to learn about new products and services that can help institutions design effective emergency plans and comply with government regulations. Last year's vendors included Cisco, which showcased the potential of its WebEx technology for telecommuting, and Vital Sign Media, a company that installs defibrillators on campuses that agree to put up its digital displays.

2010 COOP/DR Summit Vendor Participants

Alertus
AllCity Wireless
Apple
Cisco
UpTime Solutions
Vital Sign Media

Savage and Hatch select the vendors based on their solutions' relevance to the college environment. Notes Hatch, "It's a constant collaboration as we travel and as we're exposed to different vendors and their disaster-management solutions, automated notification systems, and other useful products. When we see something that might be beneficial for our college system, we sign them up for the next COOP/DR Summit."

Rounding up Attendees
Most of the VCCS campuses send between four and six people to the annual summit, which is centrally located in Roanoke to ensure a good turnout. That translates into about 200 attendees. Hatch and Savage focus primarily on pulling in VCCS' presidents, safety directors, and upper administration staff, including each campus's vice president of finance and administration.

"We encourage [the senior staff] to bring everyone who is responsible for making sure that the colleges are in compliance with emergency-preparedness initiatives," says Savage, who adds that the presence of finance professionals at the event helps strengthen the ties between funding and emergency planning.

"In Virginia, a lot of the grant and emergency-preparedness funding is tied to local municipalities and emergency-management organizations," she explains. "It's important that our VPs of finance and administration see this connection, and see how their involvement can lead to more financial support for their schools."

Using Social Media
At the most recent COOP/DR summit, those unable to attend could keep up with the event on Twitter, where the hashtag #VCCS-ready was used to identify tweets being broadcast (and retweeted) by attendees and speakers. Hatch recounts that VCCS set up a Twitter account and asked participants to "follow" that account throughout the course of the conference.

"We realize that technological collaboration these days goes beyond e-mail and text," says Hatch, who sees the conference's simple use of Twitter as a good way to interest attendees in employing such solutions at their schools. "We're trying to get our college leadership team to recognize these new media tools, and incorporate them into notification systems and other processes."

After all, notes Savage, today's students are more attuned to their mobile devices and social media than they are to traditional alert methods such as phone calls. "The bottom line is that students use social media more than their colleges do when it comes to information dissemination," she insists. "Our attendees walked away with a better understanding of that -- via the breakout session on the topic, and the Twitter feed activity -- and took that knowledge back to their schools."

Best Practices
To other college systems looking to replicate VCCS' success with a collaborative emergency-management effort, Hatch advises, "Start your planning early, and have a focus." Every year, her team starts with a list of 10 or more disaster- and emergency-planning points for the summit agenda, and then whittles that down to just a few key areas. It's vital, emphasizes Hatch, to make the conference lineup relevant and timely by, for example, incorporating information about new legislation or mandates.

And don't be afraid to ask attendees what they would like to see on the agenda -- what their particular pain points are. This can be done via a simple e-mail survey in advance of the event, or via a social media tool like Twitter.

"No one wants to sit through a two-day conference listening to information that has nothing to do with what he or she is performing on a daily basis," says Hatch. "Give the people you're inviting a chance to provide input, and then use the event as a vehicle for delivering guidance and information on those areas of concern."

For the 2010 COOP/DR Summit agenda, including downloadable presentations, click here.
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